ROCKED CADILLAC
September 19, 2009
By Jeff Broddle

Cadillac High School Football Coach Dave Brines new they had to do something. The year before, the Vikings had gone 9-0 and finished third in the state, part of a 16-game winning streak. Although they had lost a few players since that undefeated 1973 season, Brines and his assistant coach, Jim Neff, knew their 1974 team was solid. Still, they had lost their first two games, although by close margins.

"They weren't used to losing. They were pretty down mentally," Brines said.

His conclusion was, "The kids weren't having any fun."

A coaching meeting to address the problem launched a series of events that, with Neff's help, would bring outrageously costumed, fire-breathing rock band KISS to Cadillac, Michigan for a visit that would be talked about and revisited for decades.

During the coaching meeting, Neff suggested playing rock and roll music in the locker room as a way to loosen up the team and get them ready to play.

The suggestion was a 180 degree turn from Brines' approach.

"I wanted the locker room quiet. I wanted them to be serious and think about the game," Brines said.

But Brines trusted Neff, and knew he had a good football mind, and he went along with the suggestion.

While coming up with an idea of whose music to play, Neff thought of band he had seen open for the New York Dolls. Their name was KISS. Their elaborate stage show featured shooting flames and special effects, and their racous, high energy music was bound to get the team pumped up. In addition, their name, spelled out in all capital letters, was the same as their saying in football, "Keep It Simple, Stupid."

KISS.

"So I thought, this is the perfect band," Neff said.

Also, Brines instituted a change in the line-up as a solution for returning the team to its winning ways.

Brines pulled his son, Dave Brines, Jr. out as quarterback, and made him a tailback. He also put back-up quarterback Mike "Red" Johnson in as starter.

"Now the rest of us coaches thought this was just crazy," Neff said. The entire coaching staff was Brines, Neff, and Kevin White, who, by the way, would go on to become athletic director at Duke University. The coaches harbored fears Brines would be crushed by the larger players, and Johnson had a tendency to look shaky in practice.

Those fears were resolved, however, when Brines gained almost 1,000 yards in seven games and Johnson rose to the challenge with coolness likened to Joe Montana.

The Vikings again began winning games. Neff recalled that even on road games they would lug along one of the school's record players and the locker room would reverberate with one of KISSís first few albums.

As the team went on to win game after game, Neff decided to let KISS know about the team's success. He flipped over one the albums, jotted down the address of the management company, and wrote a letter recounting how the band's music played a role in getting them back on track.

The story of Cadillac's return to its winning ways struck a chord with the band. Neff recalls getting a phone call one evening from Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley, who were backstage before a show.

"They were absolutely thrilled to hear what was going on," Neff said.

After Neff gave them the whole story, the pair asked the coach to call in after each game and let them know how the team did.

"This occurred from 1974 and into 1975," Neff said.

Seeing the band would be playing at Cobo Hall in Detroit, Neff came up with the idea of taking few players down to see the show. The promoter provided a dozen tickets, and ten players, with Brines and Neff each driving a vehicle, drove down to the big city. Cadillac wasn't as connected to the outside world as it is now, so just the trip to the Motor City was a big deal for some of the players. Some had never seen an escalator.

"In fact, we spent a lot of time before the concert with the kids riding up and down the moving stairs," Neff recalled.

In 1975, the band gave them enough tickets for the entire team to see KISS in Saginaw, further cementing the relationship between the rock group and the football team.

Then in the fall of 1975, Neff saw that KISS would be playing at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo right around the same time as homecoming. An idea of having a couple of the band members come up to a pep assembly and sign autographs evolved into having them bring the entire concert to Cadillac.

School Superintendent William Smith and Cadillac High School Principal John Laurent signed on to the plan, and the rest was history. Or as their fans call it, KISStory.

KISS arrived by limousine on Friday, Oct. 9, 1975 and checked into the Cadillac Best Value Inn, then known as Hotel Caberfae Motor Lodge. That afternoon they were greeted at Cadillac High School by a reception line of the entire student body, including the band playing "Rock and Roll All Night, Party Every Day."

KISS cut a ribbon at the school's door to mark their entrance, and followed a whirlwind schedule that included meeting with the football team, photos with the team and cheerleaders, and meeting students in the hallways.

That evening Gene Simmons ignited the bonfire with his fire breathing trick, although a confederate offered some help behind the scenes.

English teacher Penny Phelps recalled the whole visit as "a surreal experience."

She took her daughters to the concert, who then were ages 8, 9 and 10.

"I was just overwhelmed. Here was this whole wall of amplifiers, one just stacked upon another. I have never seen such a thing," Phelps recalled.

The music was so loud she remembered feeling her body vibrating, and when she left early to go home they could still hear the sound from their home about a mile away on Chapin Street.

Some elements of the show raised concerns, particularly when Gene Simmons would appear to spew "blood" from his mouth.

Brines said he mentioned to Neff he wasn't sure if the quiet town of Cadillac could handle such a sight.

Shortly, Simmons approached him.

After Brines told him The next day, KISS was offered the Key to the City at a breakfast complete with city officials in KISS face paint. Neff sported KISS make-up along with City Manager Don Mason, Mayor Pete Wagner, his wife, Superintendent of Schools William Smith, Coach Brines, and Principal John Laurent.

That afternoon the band had their own float in the homecoming parade, which wound its way to Memorial Stadium. A large helicopter landed in the middle of the football field, the band got on board, and as they flew away thousands of fliers were dropped reading, "Cadillac High, KISS Loves You!"

Superintendent Smith said he can't recall any of the songs they played, but he did recently pick up a tape he occaisonally plays in his car. In spite of some of the fears of what would happen when the band came to town, Smith said he found them to be well spoken, and well behaved.

"I find no fault with their attitude and their behavior," he said.

Much of his enjoyment of the experience came from seeing the students talk excitedly about the experience and "clap and yell and scream" for the band.

Junior Varsity Cheerleader Carol Lee recalled the visit buoyed the students' spirits for quite some time, giving them bragging rights over other high schools for quite some time.

Lee said she was also happy to see "the adults get interactive with it" and paint their faces, because students at that age didn't view adults as really "cool."

Phelps remembers the event as a very solidifying experience for the school, and the town.

"I think we need to do it again," Phelps said.

"There are so many people feeling tremendous pressures. I would be wonderful if we could have some sort of mobilizing experience that everybody could feel good about and come together and just enjoy the moment the way they did then," she added.